The two scripture portions that were read this morning from Paul’s letter to the folks at Corinth provide rough outlines of the apostle Paul’s “recommended” agenda for meetings of people committed to serve each other in what has become popularly known as a “church”.
I’d like to begin with a very sincere compliment. I think that you folks here at GMF have done a much better job than most groups, at following the Biblical instructions. Unlike most groups, who have chosen to hire one person to be “in charge,” and to do all the teaching, preaching, and other assorted “leadership” functions, you have passed around those responsibilities. Looking over the last list that we received, I see that we have included Ben, John Bender, John Storm, Solomon, Dave, and Aaron in the last quarter, to share their insight with us. If you look back a little farther, you will find that Tami, Keith, and Ruth have also been included, as has an occasional outside guest. But where are the rest? Although many of you willingly assume other responsibilities, and do it very well, what have we missed, by not hearing from Shirley, Dana, Sharon, Mildred, Brenda, Abeba, Anita, and some of our newer folks? I Cor.14 expressly states that EVERYONE has something worth sharing! Count the uses of “all”, “every,” and “each”! V.7 reminds us “The revelation of the Spirit is given by means of each one, for everyone’s benefit!”
Some groups think they have “remedied” their situation by substituting women for men in “leadership” positions. But that is really not a solution. As Tony Campolo observed years ago, “It may well be true that the church has suffered for 2000 years from the domination and dictatorship of thousands of arrogant, overbearing males. But replacing them with an equal number of arrogant overbearing females does not solve anything!” Neither condition is the picture described in Paul’s letter, nor in Scripture as a whole. I Cor. 14:31 could not be more clear: “You can ALL speak for God (the literal meaning of “prophesy”), one at a time, so that ALL may learn and ALL may be encouraged! “ Is there anyone among us that does not need to learn or to be encouraged?
I recommend to you a very interesting and revealing “Mother’s day” exercise. Scan through the Gospels, and you will find (as I did) that whole families were involved with Jesus from the very beginning.
Both fathers and mothers brought their sons or daughters to Jesus for healing.
In the crowds that followed Jesus and were fed, the men were counted, but women and children are also deliberately included in the record on both occasions. (Maybe the kids were running around, as kids do, and the women were too busy trying to catch them, to be accurately counted! I can believe that – I had four small boys!)
A group of faithful women traveled around with the disciple group “supplying their needs out of their own means.” (Luke 8) These ladies must have had their own independently wealthy resources!
A group of women was present at the crucifixion, at the resurrection, and at Pentecost.
Mary and Martha are mentioned frequently – not only in the event with their brother Lazarus
Jesus specifically interacted even with foreigners: a Samaritan woman at the well (Jn.4), a Canaanite woman (Mt.15), a Greek woman (Mk.7), a group of women (Lk.8) who had been healed, and many were noted frequently as having been in the crowd.
The disciple group was no exclusive men’s club! Women are mentioned as meeting with the other disciples both before and after Pentecost. (Ac.1 and 2). Their presence may well have been counter-cultural for Jewish folks, Romans, and Greeks, but it was not rare among Jesus’ followers!
There is even sharper contrast with the pagan world. In both Roman and Greek societies, in “religious” contexts, women served primarily as temple prostitutes, and occasionally as fortune-tellers or “oracles”.
Not so among followers of Jesus!
*A husband and wife, Priscilla and Aquila, hosted church groups in their home in several locations, (Corinth and Ephesus, Ac.18), travelled with Paul several times, and together, they straightened out Apollos, who had been teaching an incomplete message.
It is acknowledged that things were not always “all sweetness and light”!
*Ananias and Sapphira were both held responsible for their deception of the brotherhood. (Ac.5)
*Saul arrested both men and women “followers of the Way” before his conversion (Ac.9) in Damascus.
*Dorcas/Tabitha, (probably the only one who would “fit” in with today’s “women’s groups”) led a sewing circle (Ac.9)!
*Mark’s mother (Ac.12) and Timothy’s mother Ac.16) both hosted congregations in their homes.
*A wealthy businesswoman, Lydia, hosted the group in Philippi (Ac.16)
*“Prominent, godly women” hosted churches in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens (Ac.17)
*Philip’s four daughters were known for their prophesies (Ac.21)
*Phoebe, apparently a deaconess, carried a letter for Paul to Rome.
*In Paul’s letters, at least 14 women’s names appear in greetings.
This was the CONTEXT in which these accounts were written!
It is the pattern of “religions” – Jewish, pagan and otherwise – even many who call themselves “Christian” — to codify elaborate theologies and customs, in which they designate and elevate to high status certain individuals who specialize in keeping the system and its adherents in proper order. Because they consider that the proper ritual, properly performed by a properly qualified individual, will have desired, predictable results, and provide to the observers some sort of benefit from their gods, the exalted status of an ecclesiastical hierarchy is deemed necessary. The word “hierarchy” is derived from two Greek words: “hierus” (priest) and “arche” (ruler). (Does this describe or require a need for local, national, or conference officials?) It might, on a social level, but that sort of a system bears no resemblance whatever to the instructions of Jesus concerning leadership in his Kingdom. He is quoted in Mt.23:8-12, and Mk.9:35 directing quite explicitly, that positions of hierarchy are NOT acceptable among his people. The grace of God is indeed mediated to people through people, but it is through the gathered group of believers that God’s purposes are revealed!!! I Cor.14:26 declares that “EACH ONE has…” something important to contribute
IF YOU HAVE COMMTTED YOUR LIFE TO THE LORD JESUS, THEN YOU ARE ONE OF HIS DESIGNATED MEDIATORS!!! You may forget everything else that I have said today, but remember this! (repeat) If your contribution is not heard, we are all poorer for its lack!
Paul’s instructions to the folks in Corinth need to be viewed in this context.
The primary concern there, as in his other letters, is for right relationships in the Body of Christ, which is the local expression of Jesus’ Kingdom. Although the passage in the beginning of I Cor.11 has traditionally been viewed as “ammunition” for the imposition of hierarchical status among the members of the Body, and loudly touted to exclude the participation of women, such a conclusion is diametrically opposed to the relationships that are actually advocated! Careful examination of the text reveals exactly the opposite!
What is Paul saying, when he declares, “I want you all to know that Christ is the head of every man, the husband is the head of the wife, and God is the head of Christ!”? This is not a stair-step of descending hierarchy. It is CIRCULAR – beginning and ending with “Christ”! Paul is holding up the relationship between the Lord Jesus and the Father, as the model for that between husbands and wives, and between Christ and his people!
The Lord intends that his people see, in his absolute unity with the Father, (which by the way, was why they wanted him killed), the pattern for our own lives! The Father and Son were each totally committed to the purposes, the welfare, and the glory of each other! They were both totally dedicated to the same goal – the establishment of the Kingdom!
This is the pattern for leadership that we brethren (say “siblings” if you prefer) are expected to exercise in our life as Kingdom citizens! Like the Father and Son, our commitment to each other is expected to be complete, of single focus, inviolable, and utterly joyful! This is the meaning of the “headship” that Kingdom citizens are expected to observe!
More specifically, among both Jewish and pagan religionists, a prophet was a cut above the average citizen. Prophesying was done only by individuals specifically set aside as spokesmen for their god! Do you see, then, how revolutionary it was when Paul spoke of “every man” praying and prophesying? Just as revolutionary as it would be today! And as if that was not enough, he goes on to extend this same responsibility to “every woman”! In pagan worship, remember, the function of women was usually prostitution! The call (in v.5) for modest attire is in sharp contrast to female participants in pagan “worship” wearing little or nothing! And the inclusion of women in prayer and prophecy is also in sharp contrast to Jewish women, who were summarily excluded from even entering the “holy” parts of the temple! The women of the disciple group are being lifted up, not put down!!!
This is not an isolated principle. It is intimately connected with one’s whole understanding of the Body of Christ! It is not male-female roles that are at the root of most of the difficulty among the people of God. The real problem lies in our refusal to learn that there is no place for ANY kind of status among us! We do have many different functions, as was read in I Cor.12. But “when we all come together”, EACH ONE, according to I Cor.14, is to contribute to the edifying! In Christ, everyone is assumed to have a unique, valuable, and necessary contribution to make to the Kingdom! We need each other equally. And don’t forget the other half of the admonition – the “safety valve”: “The others must EVALUATE what is said!” (v.29) Have you ever seen that happen?
This, then, is the message that sets the stage for Paul’s instructions regarding participation in the life of a congregation. The call is for mutual participation, respect, and order, exercised in the freedom with which the people of God have been entrusted, “so that all may learn, and all be encouraged.”
Let’s continue to give it our very best try!
Thanks be to God!